Interviewed by: Lamija Milišić

Words sound harsher if we don’t break them into verses 

On the occasion of the publication of her new collection of poems titled “Spoticanja” (Eng. Stumbling Blocks) (BIRN, 2021), poetess Mirjana Narandžić discusses the peculiarities of her artistic expression, poetry as being conditioned by the social context in which it is created and the inseparability of personal from collective history.  

Your collection of poems titled Spoticanja (Eng. Stumbling Blocks) was published last year. It abounds in motives of a fragmented, at times even alienated, personal history of your lyrical subjects. The collection opens with the poem “biografija lirskog subjekta 1” (Eng. “biography of the lyrical subject 1”) and closes with “druga biografija lirskog subjekta” (Eng. “the second biography of the lyrical subject”). Both these poems, as their titles seem to imply, are characterized by a self-conscious lyrical expression, as in being in a state of relentless self-questioning. I would like to add the poem titled “limerencija” (Eng. “limerence”) to the two previously mentioned poems; it seems to be self-destructive to the very last verse. Would you describe your new collection of poems as self-conscious poetry, and if so, what is the motive behind creating such poetics?    

I suppose that all contemporary poetry (or at least the poetry that I have been reading) could be described by that phrase. However, I wouldn’t necessarily limit anybody’s verses (or mine for that matter) with that description.   

As for poetics, I believe it develops through the very process of writing. I do not think it can be consciously “selected”. In my opinion, poetics has to be reached, accomplished if you like. Poetics is something that is constantly being shaped; it is then torn down and reshaped. I dare say it is a process that does not run from one book to another or from poem to poem; it literally happens from one verse to another, from one word to another and – let’s put it that way – from one idea to another. 

A frequent state in which we happen to find your lyrical subjects is the state of limbo. A suitable example would be the poem titled “uputstvo za upotrebu” (Eng. “instruction manual”), which is entirely written in the imperative mood, which, to me, serves to illustrate a peculiar demand for change, for evoking all that which is absent. A similar motive is found in the poem “brojim do deset” (Eng. “I count to ten”), whose very title seems to be indicative of the ritual of survival in limbo, whilst this state is probably best described by the grotesque image of a larva in the final stanza of the poem titled “transformacija”  (Engl. “transformation”). Why are you exposing your lyrical subjects to this state of limbo? Why are you so interested in this type of experience in your lyrical expression? 

 I have always been intrigued by this somewhat oxymoronic position of being “neither here nor there” which, on the one hand, implies isolation and on the other, a constant social presence and necessity to understand the moment in which one creates art. You cannot create art out of context. At least I can’t. That is why this “state of limbo”, as you put it, seems so appealing and that is why the entire collection of poems evolves from that sense of being placed in some sort of an interspace which – let me reinterpret those who outsmart me – enables me to both “stand on top of a hill” as well as “underneath it”.   

In that sense, the Stumbling Blocks collection has been envisaged as a journey from point A to point B, or from the first biography to the second if you like. It is up to the reader to find out how and where that journey ends, or in other words, to find out whether the lyrical subject succeeds in displacing him/herself from that imposed state.

Apart from the personal experiences and the impact of personal history, the Stumbling Blocks collection also contains reflections on collective history and its significance with regards to an individual’s identity. Such motives are found in poems such as “jednog marta” (Eng. “once upon a March”) and “nasljeđe” (Eng. “legacy”), whereas poems such as “rođenima nakon 1992.” (Eng. “to those born after 1992”), “Višegrad”, “Vukovar” and “8372” depict, amongst other things, the vicious cycle of facts and reminiscences. Could you tell us more about the reasons and importance of this topic for your poetry? What is the meaning behind these fragments of history which you often did not get to experience directly?

In my opinion, as far as this corner of the world is concerned, one’s personal history is inseparable from the collective history, even when you think that it is.  

For instance, if you go through the list of names of people who were held up in the Jasenovac concentration camp, you will come across dozens of people with the same surname as mine. What you will not come across is the name of my great grandfather who had, as it happened, moved some 40 km away from Belgrade right before the war broke out. Hence, it was pure coincidence that saved an entire “branch” of that family. 

And that is how collective history is tackled in my poems – as a series of coincidences that, one way or another, shape the state policies. 

Now, bearing in mind I was born in 1992 and that I am – let me use that personification combined with a mediocre black humour – almost a peer of the latest war, I find it to be completely logical that I am concerned with what is chronologically closer to me.  

When that is “combined” with the state we previously discussed and with the need to act from the “counter position”, that is how we get both Vukovar and Višegrad and Srebrenica and Sarajevo. And that is also how we get a lyrical subject that clearly remembers 24th March 1999. For in my poems there is no us and them, there are crimes and victims to whom homage should be paid. 

 I would like you to tell us something about developing the female identity in poems such as “Helena” (“Helen”) and “maska dobre žene” (Eng. “the mask of a good woman”). What is “Helen’s fault”, as you put it? What is a “good woman” like? Do they achieve freedom in their defeat, behind the mask and “only while they’re sailing”?

If I had to provide a key to “interpret” the entire collection, I would definitely direct the reader to the Brecht quotation from the beginning of the collection and the poem “Helena” which is dedicated to Mira Furlan, but I believe that every woman from this part of the world who “dared” to have her own view (or anti-view) because of which her income, blood cells and life partners were scrutinized and counted, could identify herself with. 

My Helen is placed somewhere between Euripides and Homer, but in her you will also find elements of “The Letter to My Fellow Citizens” from 1991. She is all made up of that almost tragic guilt to which the experiences of a woman of the 21st Century have been attached and so she is forever balancing between being a classical heroine and a woman with a mask since “she bears a name infamous throughout Hellas”. 

We have already touched upon the auto-referent, self-conscious nature of your poetry. It seems to me that it has in a significant way been discussed in the poem you titled “kako treba od samog pocetka”  (Eng. “as it should be from the very beginning”). To be more precise, I am referring to the following verses, “If all those things that I haven’t said had become a poem /  if a verse were not a mere replacement for a prose piece or a curse / this would be the thirty-third book…”. How do you perceive this relationship between the words you have not said and the words that you have written? Consequently, how do you perceive the relationship between poetry and prose?    

Many people have asked me now that I have published the third collection of poems, whether it was now time to start writing prose. Prose is somehow taken more seriously. I for once take it more seriously.

Verse gives you absolute freedom (if you count your syllables right); prose is different. You put a full-stop and start anew. Words sound harsher if you do not break them into verses. 

Does poetry serve its own purpose (and how is that achieved?) or is it just a means to a different end?

I do not write poetry as if I were writing a personal journal in verse. I neither write poems from the three text messages to which I got no reply. So, as far as I am concerned, poetry does serve its own purpose.

Of course, poetry is a result of certain real-life situations and of course, it starts out from a certain relationship (or a former relationship), it certainly is a form of self-evaluation of certain processes but in my view, all its charm is lost once it becomes a means to a different goal.

Stumbling Blocks were published in the pandemic-stricken 2021. Several poems bear reference to and contain traces of this state of emergency. The motive is explicit at times, as in the poem “šta sam prvo izgubila” (Eng. “the thing I lost first”), “I lost others / because of the pandemic / by the pandemic”. To what extent has the pandemic affected your writing and what is the role that poetry can play in the context of articulating this chaotic state of general uncertainty and social turmoil such as this pandemic?

My writing is primarily a reflection of the present moment. Yes, I observe history, I question my own past and the decisions I made, but there is always a connection with the present.

Thence the pandemic, thence the surgical masks, thence the few people who keep social distance. It was simply the reality we lived in and as such, it found its place in this book. 

What are your views on the modern literary scene in Serbia and the region? Do you think that you and your fellow writers, your colleagues, constitute a unique voice of a generation? 

There is a lot of writing going on, both in Serbia and the region. A significant number of publishing houses are willing to support young authoresses and authors, literary events are organized and we all bear witness to a digital renaissance of poetry. I thereby do not wish to imply anything derogatory, on the contrary! I believe this literary hyper production has generated some wonderful new voices.  

I am intentionally using the plural form here as I am not certain that we all form a unique voice. I think we are closer to being a mixed choir which lacks sopranos and altos, but we’ll get there. 

Who are your literary role models and is there a literary character that you can entirely relate to? 

I often say that I would probably not write like I do or at all if, at a point in my life, I had not come across Leonard Cohen. I think that everything that that man had written has somehow been woven into every single poem I wrote. It may not be style-wise, actually not at all, but in terms of ideas and in terms of the atmosphere in my poems. As for identifying with literary characters, I seem to have outgrown that (unless the lyrical subject of this collection is perceived as a literary character).

Are you currently working on creating a new lyrical or maybe a prose world?

Always. It’s just that, as on previous occasions, I do not know what that world will eventually look like. 

Lamija Milišić is a literary scholar and a literary and theatre critic. She was born in 1995 in Sarajevo, where she graduated in philosophy and comparative literature and obtained a master’s degree on “Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’: Coding and Language Stratification.” She won the Best Student of UNSA award and the UNSA Gold Badge award. Her essays, book reviews, review papers and scientific papers have been published by various (printed and online) literary journals in the Balkan region. In her work she explores ontology of literary characters, narratology and semiology and ways of translating literary forms into other media, such as film and video games. She is the Secretary-General of the PEN Centre of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

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